Thursday 20 September 2018

Book Review: Napoleon, David Chandler

Although this is far from the first book I've ever read on Napoleon or his era, I think it'd make a good starting point, and perhaps especially so for younger readers. Certainly I thoroughly enjoyed Chandler's history of Napoleon's life and military achievements. A quick, straightforward read, the book is short - a heavily illustrated 200 pages - and divided into just six chapters. These are:

Preparation and Promise - Napoleon's Corsican roots, and the beginnings of his youthful rise to prominence in pre-revolutionary and then revolutionary France. 

Italy, Egypt & Brumaire - Napoleon 's meteoric rise continues, as he makes his mark in Italy before embarking on and then abandoning an Egyptian adventure, eventually returning to France and intriguing his way to ascendency.

Brumaire, Napoleon seizes power, Bouchot.

The Years of Achievement - Napoleon's 'glory days', the founding of the myth of invincibility, and the seemingly unstoppable ascent of his 'star'. This section covers his most successful campaigns - Marengo, Ulm/Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, etc. - in the period 1800-7.

The Path to Failure - Napoleon opens the Spanish 'ulcer', and then disastrously overreaches himself, irrevocably leading to his own ultimate undoing, by opening up a second (and massive front), taking on the Russian 'Bear'. Whilst this period sees Boney sow the seeds of his own destruction, it also covers the successful 1809 campaign against Austria. 

Defeat and Abdication - The campaigns of 1813-14, and, of course the 'Hundred Days'. Europe finally pools resources successfully, defeating Boney at Leipzig, and hounding him back into France. By now his enemies have adopted the best of French military measures, and have strategies for getting around Napoleon's wiles. Returning from Elban exile he tries one last gamble, which very nearly succeeds (it'd only have given a brief respite though, as war-weary France, short of men, horses or any further appetite for war, couldn't indefinitely face off a united Europe), but of course doesn't.

Napoleon fleeing the battlefield of Waterloo, Jazet after Steuben.

It all ends, militarily speaking, with Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo, which for many British readers will also be where their interest began. It certainly was for me, in the shape of an Airfix 'La Haye Sainte' toy soldier set!

Nap & His Art of War - The final chapter looks at Napoleon's character, and briefly sketches out his tactics and the tools of his trade, i.e. la Grande Armée, it's formation, history & structure, etc.

Given the small size of the book, everything is covered only very briefly. And yet a heck of lot is covered, and there's a lot of very interesting detail. Perhaps this is not so surprising an accomplishment as it might at first appear, given that Chandler's greatest and perhaps best known work is his magnificent three-volume Campaigns of Napoleon, which he'd completed before writing this shorter work for the general reader.

If Napoleon were a starter, this would be banquet.

Unlike Esdaile, in Napoleon's Wars, Chandler, whilst acknowledging political (and other) dimensions, concentrates firmly, and in typical old-school military buff fashion, on Napoleon's military story. I believe I once read somewhere (alas, I can't recall where) that Chandler didn't like Napoleon, and made that clear in his writing. Well, in my reading experience so far he seems at least as admiring as he is critical, although undoubtedly he is both. To my mind Chandler gives a pretty well balanced view, if also one that's starting to look a little old-fashioned. 

Many readers, myself included, will seek to find out more about Napoleon's achievements outside of his military career. One needs to look elsewhere for that. But as a short, comprehensive and easy-to-read military history of Napoleon's career, this seems to me a good pretty good place to start.

David Chandler


  1. This is the least favourite of the Chandler books and not a patch on his Campaigns. I have it in my collection though. Can I suggest a copy of Swords Around the Throne by Col. Elting which is a wonderful book written in a great style.

    1. Hi Robbie, thanks for the recommendation. Actually I do already have Swords Around A Throne, but I just haven't got around to reading it yet. I'm currently reading the second volume of Rory Muir's enormous Wellington biog, Napoleon's memoirs (ed. by the wonderfully named Somerset de Chair!), and several other books. So many books, so little time!